She was five years old, and she watched the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with amazement.
Jackie Joyner Kersee! Carl Lewis!
And so Megumi Ikeda thought one day, this little girl from Nanyo, Yamagata in northern Japan would be as fast and as cool as Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
As it turned out, Ikeda (née Harada) simply didn't have the athletic gifts to excel in track and field. And yet, the flame of high performance can be sparked in unexpected ways. Ikeda would go on to represent Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the Beijing Olympics in individual épée fencing.
Fencing is an old sport, but it is not a money-making sport. People don't fill arenas around the world to watch fencing, wrestling, weightlifting, curling, hammer throwing, cross-country skiing, or the luge.
But every four years, billions of people watch the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.
Why do so many people watch the Olympics?
So many people watch the Olympics because they become witness to the very best athletes in the world. Human senses are lifted to their keenest. Human physicality is stretched to its limits. Human desire swells up from the deepest recesses of one's will.
Sport, like painting, singing, dancing, acting and writing is an act of human expression. Like a sculptor in an attic, a rock band in a basement, or actors in a park, kids on the street playing football are expressing themselves.
At the Olympics, sport is art. The Olympics provide highly skilled, highly trained athletes an opportunity to seek perfection, to express themselves with precision and abandon. And in so doing, they inspire others.
American gymnast Simone Biles controls and manipulates her body in the air, on the bars or on the floor in ways no other woman can come close to doing. In fact, her level of complexity is so high, judges sometimes do not have the scoring range to recognize that level.
Figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu brings music, dance, acting and athleticism together so harmoniously and boldly that people who know nothing about figure skating know they are watching poetry in motion.
The four Japanese men who took the silver medal in the 4x100 sprint relay finals at the 2016 Rio Olympics were not composed of the fastest runners at the Olympics. None of the four raced in the individual 100-meter finals. But in the relay, their baton exchanges were flawless, and they challenged powerhouse Jamaica for gold. Their perfect race electrified Japanese viewers, and sparked pride and joy in the hearts of millions of boys and girls who began to dream of sprinting for gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Tokyo2020's greatest significance will be the countless number of children around the world inspired by the artistry of human athleticism. Inspiration, more than ever before, is needed.
Inflection Point for the Olympic Movement
Because of the Olympics, the general public is more aware of many of these athletic disciplines. If the Olympics did not exist, the financial support for them would wane.
However, many would say, that's the way of the world. Do we really need badminton, or ski jumping, or archery to sustain us? Isn't the cost of hosting the Olympics too high? For many cities and nations, the answer is "yes," based on the growing reluctance of municipalities to host a Summer or Winter Games.
The pandemic, which has caused a year-long delay and added significant cost to Tokyo2020 operations, may also be a wake-up call to organizers of global big-tent sports events.
Tokyo2020 will make it even clearer to the IOC, the IPC and the Olympic ecosystem that cities and countries will have to be further convinced that the benefits of city and national brand-building outweigh the cost to taxpayers, as well as the cynicism of the general public.
That will mean far greater efforts to ease the financial burden on hosts, which may fundamentally change the way the Olympics are run. It may also mean a clearer set of risk management policies or business continuity plans taking into account extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime issues.
The Inclusion Games
The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were the ultimate Inclusion Games. Japan warmly welcomed over 90 nations in the first Olympiad in Asia, only 19 years after the end of a world war that left Japan a defeated and vilified nation.
Nearly six decades later, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics may be perceived as the ultimate Exclusion Games. A large majority of the Japanese population called for the cancellation of the Olympic Games in the first half of 2021, and foreign spectators were banned from attending the Olympics.
But one could interpret the situation differently. After all, any nation would have been challenged with the decision to hold the Olympics and Paralympics during the COVID-19 pandemic had a city of theirs been the host.
And yet, for right or for wrong, the Japanese government committed to Tokyo2020 and chose to engage with the global community in an attempt to spearhead a return to normalcy. Indeed, in sporting terms, Tokyo2020 will be the Inclusion Games, with a very high degree of difficulty. Organizing an Olympics and Paralympics during this pandemic is like Simone Biles executing a Yurchenko Double Pike, a vault so difficult no other female gymnast wants to do it. But if Japan can, the Games will be amazing.
And in the case of Tokyo2020, the impact will extend beyond sports.
The 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, and subsequent Paralympics, visualized for the disabled, their family and friends a lifestyle of meaning and accomplishment beyond what they had previously imagined. The Paralympics, even more than the Olympics, can burn new impressions into the mindsets of the general public of what the disabled can do when provided the support and accommodations to express themselves freely in sport.
It's critical for people to understand that the disabled are not just 15% of the world's population. At some point in our lives, everyone has to deal with disability of some form, particularly as one ages, and so it is in the interest of all members of society to have a greater understanding of what the disabled need to be their very best.
In addition to raising awareness about the disabled, Tokyo2020 is also being leveraged to highlight discrimination against the LGBT community in Japan. While an anti-discrimination LGBT bill was dropped and not voted at the end of a recent Diet session, the human rights drive for equality for LGBT continues. And Tokyo2020 has been a catalyst for activists. As Gon Matsunaka, head of Pride House Tokyo recently said, "The Olympic Charter clearly bans discrimination. This is a breach of the contract with the International Olympic Committee."
In 1964, Japan hoped the world would include Japan. In 2021, the world is hoping that Japan includes the world.
When Ikeda was in her final year of high school, she told her parents she wanted to move to Tokyo, continue to fence, and then compete in the Olympics. Her parents were bewildered. She had to go to university and get a real job, not waste money on fencing. Going to the Olympics is "impossible," they told her.
Ikeda always had the support of her parents, but when she was told her dream was impossible, the high school girl stood her ground. She had developed such a powerful image of making the Olympics that giving up on the dream so quickly was hurtful. Giving up without trying was unthinkable.
She pushed back. She fought with her parents for two months until she decided to lay out her plan and her vision of the Olympics in a formal presentation to her parents: what goals she would have to achieve in her four years in university, including making the national team, and becoming national champion by her junior year. Her parents finally gave in, and allowed their daughter to pursue her dream.
If you're a world-class volleyball, basketball or baseball player in Japan, you are likely in a corporate or professional team. If you're in a prominent sport like swimming, track and field, wrestling or judo in Japan, your sports association likely funds the training of the best athletes. But if you're an adult in a lesser-known sport, you are not going to get all that much financial support.
In fact, Ikeda worked a variety of part-time jobs - at restaurants, bookstores, printing factories, delivery companies - so she could fund her dream. She thought she should move to Europe where she could train at one of the meccas of fencing - Budapest, Hungary. Then she could travel easily to many of the épée world cups scheduled in Europe.
She knew the reigning Olympic champion in women's individual épée, Timea Nagy, was based in Budapest. Did Ikeda know her? No. Did she know anyone in Hungary? No. Did that stop her? No.
Ikeda got on the internet, identified a Japanese person living in Budapest, and convinced her to help. With insight from her new friend, a detailed plan emerged. On a budget of only 2 million yen (or about USD18,700 in 2003), Ikeda was to rent an apartment in Budapest, train at the nearby fencing club, and compete at tournaments in Europe.
And that's what she did. During the weekdays, Ikeda trained with the best fencers in Hungary. Then she took the night train to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, to compete in épée world cups on the weekend. Ikeda got better. She accumulated points. And at the World Cup in Thessaloniki, Greece she had enough points to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics and represent Japan.
Her parents, who objected so fiercely to her "impossible" dream, sat proudly in the stands when their daughter entered the stadium in Athens at the opening ceremony, as an Olympian.
Like Ikeda in 2003, like Japan in 1964, it's time for Japan in 2021 to take on the challenge, embrace the world, and perform.